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Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 6


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After Forbach there was nothing to hinder the Germans from pushing forward their armies into France. The First and Second Armies, facing to the westward, marched in the direction of Metz - Steinmetz keeping to the north, and Prince Frederic Charles to the south, of the railway connecting Metz with Saarbrück. About the 12th inst., Steinmetz was reinforced by the 1st Corps, under General Manteuffel, which with other fresh troops was brought up from Germany. Bazaine, on his part, was doing his utmost to re-form and augment the French army round Metz. He was now possessed of uncontrolled authority; for Count Palikao, though he would not consent to Jules Favre's motion for the recall of the Emperor to Paris, lest the excited populace should rise and put a sudden end to the dynasty, wisely yielded on the main point, and prevailed upon the Emperor to resign the chief command. Accordingly, by an Imperial order of the 12th August, Bazaine was appointed generalissimo of the Army of the Rhine, with Colonel Jarras as his chief of the staff. Nevertheless, Napoleon, afraid to return to Paris, unwilling even to trust himself at the camp of Chalons, remained with the army, and was the cause of much embarrassment and delay. It had been originally intended that the Crown Prince should bring his army to the assistance of the other two armies, for the reduction of Metz. But when the German chiefs noted the overpowering strength of the First and Second Armies, they deemed that further addition to their numbers was unnecessary, and it was decided that the Crown Prince should march upon Paris by a route lying farther south, through Nanby, St. Dizier, and Chalons. His head-quarters were at Luneville on the 15th, and at Nancy on the 16th August, the ancient capital of Lorraine surrendering without a shot to a squadron of German troopers. Bazaine had now under his command the Imperial Guard, the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and part of the 6th Corps, making a total of about 140,000 men. The heavy losses of the 2nd Corps on the day of Forbach were nearly compensated by the presence of a brigade from the 5th Corps, which, having been at Saargemund, was unable to join De Failly in his sudden retreat to the southward. Of the 6th Corps (Canrobert) one division had been cut off from Metz by the rapidity of the German advance, and compelled to return to the camp of Chalons.

Finding that with his utmost efforts he could not bring together a force capable of coping with the First and Second Armies in the field, Bazaine resolved to leave Metz for a time to the protection of its encircling forts and powerful garrison, and fall back towards Verdun and Chalons. The movements within the French lines, caused by the preparations for complying with this order, attracted the attention of General Steinmetz, and brought on the battle of Borny, or Courcelles. Prince Frederic Charles had moved with the Second Army to the southward, intending to cross the Moselle at Pont ŕ Mousson and other places above Metz, and then seize the roads leading to Verdun and Paris. Steinmetz seems to have intended only a reconnaissance in force, but the eagerness of the German troops brought on an engagement along the whole line, some miles to the east of Metz, in which (August 14) neither side gained a decided advantage, but a part of the French army was detained at Metz on the following day; which was exactly what Steinmetz had desired. The loss on the German side in this battle amounted very nearly to 5,000 men killed and wounded; that of the French was 3,610. General Decaen, lately appointed to the command of the 3rd Corps, was mortally wounded, and Marshal Bazaine himself was struck by a ball on the left shoulder, his life being only saved by the thickness of his epaulette. General Steinmetz, coming up after the battle, praised the gallantry of the troops, but expressed some disapproval of the conduct of the corps commanders (Manteuffel and Zastrow), for having engaged in so serious an action without authority. Yet the delay in the general movements of the French army caused by this fierce attack on its rear-guard materially aided, as we learn on the testimony of Bazaine himself, in the successful accomplishment of Moltke's strategic plan for intercepting the march of Bazaine's army to Verdun and Chalons, and forcing it back behind the fortifications of Metz. For the 2nd and 6th Corps had crossed the Moselle on the same day that Borny was fought (August 14), and were echeloned along the Verdun road in front of Gravelotte on the 15th; the Guards crossed the river on the night of the 14th, and reached the vicinity of Gravelotte on the next day at evening; and could the 3rd and 4th Corps have made similar progress, the march to Verdun might have been continued by the entire army early on the morning of the 16th, before the Germans could come up in sufficient force to prevent it. But the 3rd and 4th Corps had fought desperately on the day of the 14th, and had lost heavily; their ammunition needed to be replenished and their ranks re-formed, so that it was impossible for them to complete their crossing of the river before the middle of the day on the 15th, and they were unable to reach the positions which they had been ordered to take up near Gravelotte that day. Thus the 4th Corps, which should have arrived at Doncourt on the upper Verdun road on the 15th, did not reach it until the afternoon of the 16th. Marshal Leboeuf, who had been temporarily appointed to the command of the 3rd Corps, vice Decaen, sent a request to Bazaine that the army might not commence its march until the 3rd and 4th Corps had come up, and this request was acceded to. The Emperor slept at Longeville (a kind of suburb of Metz, on the left bank of the Moselle) on the night of the 14th, at Gravelotte on the 15th, and left for Verdun very early on the morning of the 16th, taking with him an escort of 6,000 men, whom the over-matched French army could ill spare.

The strength of the Army of the Rhine on the 13th August was - Infantry, 122,000; Cavalry, 13,000; Artillery, 10,000: total, 145,000 men. Besides these, there were 25,000, mostly non-combatants, employed in the administrative and auxiliary services, and as gardes mobiles. Deducting those who had been killed or disabled at the battle of Borny, and the 6,000 who accompanied the Emperor to Verdun, there remained an available force not exceeding 135,000 men, with which, if possible, Bazaine was to march or fight his way to Verdun. On the morning of the 16th, no movement having been made that day by the troops massed in front of Gravelotte, on account of the non-arrival of the 3rd and 4th Corps, the heads of the German columns, appearing from the southward about 10 a.m., pushed back Forton's cavalry division, which had bivouacked to the south of the lower Verdun road, and occupied Mars-la-Tour. The position of the French troops at this time was as follows: the 2nd and 6th Corps occupied both sides of the Verdun road, between Rézonville and Mars-la-Tour, and were supported by Forton's cavalry division, already mentioned, and also by the first cavalry division of General Du Barrail. The Guard, massed to the north of Gravelotte, was held in reserve; the 3rd and 4th Corps were still on the march from Amanvillers. At first the Germans were in no great force, but their numbers kept increasing, and their artillery fire became more and more deadly. At noon Bazaine was compelled to bring up the Guard and place them in line. It was not till two o'clock that the 3rd and 4th Corps came into action on the right of the French line, which then extended in a northwesterly and south-easterly direction across both the Verdun roads, facing the Prussians who were coming up from the south and west. The battle raged all day with great violence; at nightfall the French held their positions and had taken a Prussian flag. But their loss, apparently owing to the superiority of the German artillery, was fearfully heavy; Bazaine himself states it at 16,954 killed, wounded, and missing. The German loss is stated at 14,820 men. It is difficult to ascertain the precise numbers engaged on each side in this battle. Authorities, purely German, maintain that a force of 60,000 or 70,000 Germans intercepted the march of the enemy as he was moving upon Verdun, and defeated the whole French army; the German official account, with a disregard to accuracy not often found on that side, added that " notwithstanding the great superiority of the enemy, he was driven back to Metz." But the Swiss Colonel Rüstow, an impartial witness, estimates the forces engaged in this battle of Mars-la-Tour, or Vionville, as about equal - probably some 80,000 men on each side.

The French bivouacked on the battle-field. On the next day Bazaine found that it was impossible to continue his retreat on Verdun for several reasons. The enemy held the lower road in great force, so that an attempt to break through them would only have brought on another battle against augmented numbers; and almost the same might be said of the upper road, which for a long distance is only separated from the lower by a narrow tract of level or undulating country. Provisions also had fallen short, and ammunition still more; and these could only be replenished from the Government establishments in Metz. On the 17th, therefore, the French were engaged all day in falling back to, and strengthening themselves upon, a commanding position, extending from Amanvillers on the north to Rozerieulles on the south. The chief points along this line, proceeding from north to south, were Montigny la Grange, Leipzig, and the farmhouses of Moscou and Point du Jour. The French were posted along the edge of a plateau which is steep towards the west, and slopes down gradually on its eastern side towards Metz. On the left of the position, between Moscou and Point du Jour, the road from Verdun (the upper road having fallen into the lower at Gravelotte) ascends the plateau; about half way up stands the road-side inn of St. Hubert. At the bottom of the hill the road crosses a stream, the Mance, which on both sides of the road runs for three or four miles through woods, that to the north being the Bois de Genivaux, that to the south the Bois de Vaux. Leaving the stream the road ascends another plateau, which is, however, lower than that on which the French were posted, and reaches in about half a mile the village of Gravelotte. About two miles from Gravelotte, on the lower road, is Rezonville.

In advance of the right front of this position is the village of Verneville, round which Bazaine stationed the 6th Corps under Canrobert. But observing that there was a strong position at the village of St. Privat, commanding the road to Briey, the occupation of which would extend northwards the line already taken up, and make a turning movement on the part of the enemy more difficult, Marshal Canrobert asked permission to move his corps to St. Privat. Bazaine gave his consent; the 6th Corps occupied St. Privat; and the symmetry and defensive strength of the French line were doubtless improved by the change. By the orders of the Commander-in- Chief, shelter trenches were dug all along the line, abattis were thrown up, and all other available means for strengthening the position were resorted to. The great battle fought on the 18th August is called by Bazaine, speaking from the French point of view, the " Defence of the lines of Amanvillers," and this is a better name than " Battle of Gravelotte," for that village was on the extreme right of the battle-field, far from the point where the fortune of the day was in fact decided. The theory of Bazaine's movement was this: he desired to receive the enemy's attack in a strong and fortified position, to wear him out by fruitless and repeated losses, and so compel him to allow the French to retire unmolested, on the 19th or 20th inst., by the road to Briey. These were sound and able tactics, and if the French could have brought into line but one additional corps, would probably have succeeded.

Proceeding from left to right, the French order of battle was as follows: the 2nd Corps, under Frossard, holding the plateau at the Point du Jour, and above St. Hubert; then the Guards, partly in line, and partly held in reserve; then the 3rd Corps, under Leboeuf. The centre of the position, facing Verneville, was held by Ladmirault with the 4th Corps. Canrobert, with the 6th Corps, carried on the line to St. Privat, occupying Ste. Marie-aux-Chęnes and Roncourt - the first lying to the west on the road to Briey, the second to the north - with strong detachments. The interval of a day had given the Germans time to bring up from the southward the dense masses of the infantry of the Second Army; and so great, accordingly, was the disparity of force in the action of the 18th, that but for natural advantages of position, well improved by art, and the resolute valour with which that position was held, the French must have been swept from the field long before the day had closed. On the night of the 16th, the 10th and 3rd Corps, parts of the 8th and 9th, and the 5th and 6tli Cavalry Divisions, had bivouacked around and between Mars-la-Tour and Vionville. In the course of the 17th, the 7th, 8th, 9th, 12th, and Guard Corps, none of which had taken part in the battle of the 16th, were moved up from the direction of Pont-ŕ-Mousson to the line Mars-la-Tour - Gravelotte. All the troops named, except those belonging to the 8th and 7th Corps, were of the Second Army; the excepted corps belonged to the First Army. The plan of action for the 18th was this: that the Second Army should feel the centre and right of the French position, and endeavour to turn the enemy's right, while the First Army assailed the plateau opposite Gravelotte.

Very early on the 18th, Prince Frederic Charles directed the left wing of the entire army, consisting of the Prussian Guards and the 12th and 9th Corps, to break up from their bivouacs near Mars-la-Tour, and march in a northerly direction across the front of the enemy's position, with orders to outflank him, if possible, and attack him wherever found. The 10th and 3rd followed. The King of Prussia came on the ground at 6 a.m., and posted himself on a hill to the south-west of Gravelotte. A royal order, dispatched at 10.30, directed the 12th Corps (Saxons) and the Guards to attack either at Ste. Marie-aux-Chęnes, if they found the French attempting to retreat by the Briey road, or at Amanvillers. At the same time, the First Army was ordered to advance from Gravelotte and clear the woods in the valley of the Mance; the 10th, 3rd, and 2nd Corps were massed in reserve, at St. Ail, Verneville, and Rezonville respectively - that is, in rear of the left, centre, and right of the German position. To the 9th Corps was entrusted the attack on the centre and right centre of the French lines, which was to commence from the wood of La Cusse.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 6

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